Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Donizetti, and a catharsis of democracy

Daughter of the Regiment               I didn’t have high expectations for the cameo appearance of supreme court associate justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in last night’s production of Donizetti’s  “La fille du regiment,” at the Washington National Opera. It’s a small role that requires no singing or much acting at all. But it was a gimmick, and gimmicks usually break the dramatic spell and put everyone in an awkward place, like waiting for the boss to leave a party so the revels can begin. But I completely underestimated the need of the Washington audience for catharsis.

 When she appeared, dwarfed by the large chair in which she was sitting, her feet not nearly touching the ground, the Kennedy Center Opera House went crazy. The cheering was well beyond the usual enthusiasm for a popular local celebrity who has earned the audience’s love through regular attendance at the opera. This came from some other place, a pent-up need to acclaim something good and resilient in the American democratic system; perhaps, also, a need to cheer for a woman who has risen to one of the highest positions in the land only a few days after the hopes of many that a woman might win the presidency were dashed by the election of Donald Trump.

Ginsburg was a show stopper, and yet the show needed to be stopped. “La fille du regiment” is one of the silliest comedies in the repertory, filled with spectacular bravura music for its lead soprano and tenor, but all cobbled to a ridiculous plot about a young woman raised by a regiment of soldiers. The current political moment is dark, and many people who take solace in art are also wondering: Are things so dark that even art has become irresponsible escapism? No one could have predicted it, but Ginsburg’s appearance was a kind of pressure valve, allowing people to acknowledge the terrifying precipice on which the country is now poised, and then enjoy the opera once again as what it was always meant to be: Innocent diversion.

Ginsburg’s character, the Duchess of Krakenthorp, makes two appearances, at the beginning and end of the second act. The Duchess is a ridiculous snob, vetting a young woman for marriage into her distinguished family. The Duchess embodies values antithetical to those Ginsburg has championed, and the 83-year-old justice read her lines with bemused irony. Ginsburg’s first appearance thrilled the crowd for its novelty and for the chance to release emotion; but her second appearance was even more moving. As soprano Lisette Oropesa led the ensemble in the “Salut du France,” the justice sat in her chair, at the side, watching a young star effortlessly sail through an art form she so deeply enjoys.

And so: Two women, one scintillating as a song-bird of the 19th century, shining in the role of woman as glittery star, cynosure of pleasure, desire and fantasy; and the other silent, small, perhaps even physically frail, but a giant of jurisprudence, a steel-trap mind, and (perhaps) one of the last defenses in an old and teetering republic against the forces of dissolution. That’s a drama I never expected, especially in Donizetti’s frothiest entertainment.

Ginsburg won’t be returning in the role. She is needed elsewhere. But that shouldn’t discourage anyone from attending the next seven performances. The two stars of the show, Oropesa and tenor Lawrence Brownlee, carry it off magnificently. The former is a natural in the role of Marie, an energetic, charismatic presence on stage, with faultless coloratura and a bright, pure, pretty voice that never falters. Brownlee is a scrupulous singer, with a pliant, easy tenor, and all the high-C’s necessary for demanding show pieces such as “Ah! Mes amis, quel jour de fête!” The less said about Robert Longbottom’s musical theater-style staging the better, though its primarily fault is the thoughtless application of comedy clichés, which is pretty much the standard today for productions from this era. Conductor Christopher Allen pulled the overture together into a coherent piece, and mainly kept a firm hand on the drama (some minor confusion in Act I choral passages notwithstanding). Both Deborah Nansteel (as the Marquise of Berenkfield) and Kevin Burdette (as Sulpice) made strong contributions in their secondary roles and Hunter Enoch made a good impression in the very small role of the Corporal.

I hesitate to say this, but perhaps there’s another reason to attend this opera, even if the promise of Oropesa and Brownless isn’t enough to convince. Do it for Ginsburg, or at least, for what she represents. A powerful hero worship has built up around her, as a strong, determined, intelligent woman, who has fought for a set of values that are greatly endangered today. So here’s a kind of syllogism to ponder: This great mind loves this great art form; there must be a reason.

Photo: Ruth Bader Ginsburg, center, with Deborah Nansteel, right (by Scott Suchman, courtesy the Washington National Opera)

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